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Officials, Advocates Scramble To Help Surge Of Homeless Portland Residents

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public file

The number of people in Portland’s city shelters has increased dramatically, with the city reporting 539 people in shelter as of a week ago. City officials say they’re doing all they can to accommodate those in need, and are working to get new shelter beds opened up and renting hotel rooms.

Advocates for the homeless say the current spike comes as no surprise. Mark Swann has been with Portland homeless services agency Preble Street for decades, and he says there are some moments when he and his colleagues know that people are struggling to stay in their homes.

“Often it’s the food programs that see increases first,” he says. “It’s people desperately trying to pay their rent, so they scrimp with food and they come to pantries and soup kitchens before they can’t make the rent.”

And he says Preble Street’s food programs have been swamped for the last few months.

“We’ve been expecting this, frankly,” Swann says.

That’s because the pandemic recession has made people’s financial lives more precarious, and increased the likelihood that they’ll have to use shelter services. And city spokesperson Jessica Grondin says public health concerns have added challenging limitations.

“Given COVID, and the spacing requirements that we have to have,” she says. “Obviously the capacity at Oxford Street is lower than it would normally be. They’ve been working very diligently to make sure there’s enough other options available.”

Those options include hotel rooms, where about 250 people were staying as of last week, and an ongoing effort to repurpose a vacant county correctional building that the city calls Joyce House, but which opponents call a jail.

The city is hoping to use that as a temporary shelter to replace one in the Portland Expo, which closed just before the election. Grondin says it’s just one possible part of the plan to get people indoors before winter.

“We’ve made a commitment to providing emergency shelter for folks, and our staff has continued to do that each and every day,” she says.

Meanwhile, Preble Street has been trying since July to get permission to convert its day center, which is closed during the pandemic, into a 40 bed shelter. That’s meeting with neighborhood opposition and a lengthy delay, which Swann says is understandable, though possibly misguided.

“I think the opposition we’re facing here, honestly I think is nothing to do with Preble Street, it’s frustration on a broken, strained shelter system that’s been in place in Portland for a long, long time,” he says. “Preble Street I think is the easy target for all kinds of issues whether it’s the opioid crisis, the gentrification of Portland, the affordable housing crisis, the lack of health care — we’re kind of an easy punching bag here.”

But Swann says when and if the shelter is approved, his organization is ready to get it up and running in just a few weeks. And Grondin says the city still has spaces it can use, and is doing as much as it can to make sure that people have a place to go this winter.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.